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October 4, 2015

Community's Dan Harmon was told by NBC that critics are "bitter"

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 17th 2009 2:04PM
Dan Harmon, Creator / Executive Producer of CommunityAt the same NBC TCA party where I spoke to Joel McHale, I also ran into Community creator Dan Harmon. Suffice to say, he's a chatty fellow. I started off by asking him how a first-time show runner like him prepares to be in front of a ballroom full of reporters, as he had been earlier in the day. His answer was pretty interesting: they get briefed and told we're a bitter lot.

Harmon's claim to fame before Community was that he helped create The Sarah Silverman Program for Comedy Central, and he was one of the few people who thinks that the network creative process has been as smooth, if not smoother, than the process for basic cable.

He also got extremely effusive about having Chevy Chase on his show; I was going to edit his epic response to my question about Chevy, but it's so loopy that I figured I'd just let it stand as is. Interview after the jump.

Is this the first time you've done one of these things?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Were you a little nervous going in, thinking like we were going to be this tough crowd with pitchforks and knives?
I was prepped for that, but I was pleasantly surprised. I'm glad I was prepped for the worst-case scenario and I wasn't nervous about it, because I was prepped for it, and because I used to do stand-up in Milwaukee and I was bad at it. And I got used to being bad at it. And a big, dark room full of faces, people not laughing at anything you say and clearing their throats is no big deal to me.

See, I didn't even know this comes from the other side. What are you told about us?
We are told that you are bitter people who have a horrible job that you... I'm not kidding... that project your frustration, your understandable frustration, in spite of having a love of TV, being told that you have to sit through all of it. You can't tune out. You have to do a piece about Vampire Diaries. You have to cover it if it's not your cup of tea or not.

So what we are prepped for is not to anticipate laughter if we make a joke, and not to anticipate any kind of energy, and in fact, to anticipate a kind of like sand-trappy kind of questions. Because hey, fuck it, I'm going to kill time.

What they prep you for is to not expect to have any indications of going good or bad. They say if you're getting laughs in one of these things, like that's amazing. You're like doing an... But don't expect that and don't make that your goal.

So what are we going to see going forward after the pilot in the show?
Explorations of each of these characters in turn, kind of systematically, you might say. Each of them interact, getting tangled up in Joel's life a little bit, while he tries in vain to keep them at arm's length.

And the important thing I keep saying to the writers is, even though NBC ordered twelve episodes, Joel McHale's character didn't. You know, he's not sold on this idea yet. He doesn't want an unlikely family. He just wants to get a C in Spanish. So without forcing it in the opposite direction, we're not going to force it in the other direction.

You're not fading in on friends, you're fading in on about two weeks after the pilot, and he's sort of like getting like...these boundaries that make him comfortable are getting blurred and bleeding into each other.

Do you feel any, I don't know if pressure's the word, but do you feel any weight on you because you're on the Thursday night lineup?
I mean, no, I just feel...there's an awareness of how amazing that is. But it doesn't translate into "I hope I don't screw up." It just translates into like -- I guess I can't use the phrase It's about time, but like there's a calm. It's like, you know what, I think we all want the same thing. I think I want the thing that NBC wants, and NBC wants the thing that the audience wants.

The good thing about the Thursday night lineup is, you don't have to get pure blockbuster ratings, because as long as they like your show and it's doing OK, they'll stick with it.
They're very classy to me. They have been incredibly supportive of this show. And a lot of you guys keep asking the question, "Well tell us about the limitations that are different from network from basic cable." And it couldn't be more opposite. It's like there was so much tightness and like micromanagement in my basic cable experiences, like from development to airing and everything in between. And here, I guess maybe because we just all sort of wanted the same thing, it was like. 'Hey, how do we make this script happen?"

I haven't had a lot of these sort of traditional head-butting sessions that for 15 years I thought were part of the job. The irony of (it) is, this is the easiest it's ever been, and I'm at what I consider the tip of the pyramid.

People have to tell me that NBC isn't number one, because I grew up associating this network with like the tip of the pyramid. They're always like trying to be that sort of perfect blend of sophistication and mass appeal in television. And I always, when I was a kid, I was like, I gotta get to L.A. and I gotta get a show on this box that my parents watch. It's gotta be this station in particular. So like I said, that makes it incredibly ironic that it's this facile. I would have thought this would be a hard-won battle and a constant sweating bullets struggle.

How'd you land Chevy Chase for his role?
He came to us. He read the script, and thought it was...you know, wanted to do this. I think he, you know, you can speculate, does he want to reinvent himself, or...

What did you think when he came to you guys and said he wanted to play the part?
He said that it was the funniest thing he'd read in several decades or something like that. He said a lot of very flattering things about the script. He said that he understood that he would part of an ensemble, and not the center of the spotlight, and that he liked that idea. He said all the right things

And I thought about, who is this guy and what have I heard about him, and what do I love about him? And all of the answers to all of those questions were the answers that you should have about this character. He's got a back story a mile long. A mile is long in terms of back stories, I guess. You know, meandering, like roller coaster successes, failures. He's got backbone, he's got teeth.

He can play this like sometimes just walking into a wall and mistaking it for a telephone, but at the same time, like little spikes of assertiveness. I'm talking about the character right now. An obsession with, you know, pecking order and competition and things.

And there is a meta-intersection here with that actor, who I have sat in his trailer and talked to him about this character and the questions that he has about stuff. And I just, I feel like I'm at the top of my game, having these conversations. Because I'm working with, I guess you can't call actors tools, but I'm working with equipment that nobody gets to use, ever. And it is just, it really, you can just feel it.

And I talk to so many people who feel the same. It's such, it's about time for Chevy to like just sink his teeth into something like this. Everybody wants to love this guy so much. They want to see him like just knock this thing out of the park. And everything he's been doing is, it's not going to disappoint anybody. It's incredible.

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